News Releases

Senator Murray's Opening Statement to the Employment and Workplace Safety Hearing

May 09 2006

Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act

(Washington DC) - Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this hearing this morning so that we can examine the important role the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act plays in providing uniform protection and health care for eligible maritime workers.

I am fortunate to have a very close connection to the maritime industry because Washington State, through its ports and navigable waters, is the most trade dependent state in the country. I know from talking to longshoreman, harbor workers and those who build and repair ships and boats in Washington State that this Act has helped countless injured workers and their families pay their bills, put food on their tables, and maintain their dignity.

For workers, this Act provides medical benefits, compensation for lost wages, and rehabilitative services if they are injured on the job or contract an occupational disease. But according to a random survey of claimants conducted by the US Department of Labor, claimants are not always being advised by their employers, at the time of their injury, that they have free choice of physicians. In addition, some claimants also complained that the initial payment of compensation is not being made in a timely manner by the self-insured employer or insurance carriers.

And I know from reviewing the testimony of our witnesses this morning that they have their own ideas on how to reform this act. However, before this Subcommittee moves forward on any of the Longshore reform ideas suggested by our witnesses today, I believe that all of us in the Congress would benefit from a comprehensive review of how well this program is working. This was last done when the GAO reviewed this program in 1990, to analyze the effects of the 1984 amendments to the Act.

In 1990 the GAO found that for occupational diseases claims employers seldom accept claims and provide benefits voluntarily; they routinely dispute issues such as the cause and extent of injuries, there are frequent controversies regarding who is the liable employer (when employees have worked for more than one employer). And that only about 1% of employers voluntarily provided compensation -- without contesting them.

GAO also found that the 1984 congressional amendments to the Longshore Act helped to clarify issues like the length of the statute of limitations, wage determinations for retirees, eligibility for survivor’s benefits and coverage for retirees.

Since 1984 the Act has functioned well, providing a reasonable level of wage replacement for maritime injuries, while protecting the employers from the full costs of the injury. No one gets rich from receiving longshore benefits -- the worker always gets less than the wages he is losing from the injury.

The current system, while not perfect, is a reasonable compromise – generally fair, predictable and easy to administer. Our federal system for longshore compensation is far and away superior to our state systems which have been found to be inadequate, often failing to provide a basic floor to protect workers and their families from increased poverty, foreclosure and a substantial decline in their quality of life.

I hope the Chairman will take a measured approach as he considers changes to the Longshore Act. Hundreds of thousands of workers do this dirty and backbreaking work each and every day, keeping our economy humming by moving goods and products through our ports. We owe these workers a fair system of compensation when they are injured on the job.

I look forward to working with Chairman Isakson in a bipartisan way to fairly measure the long-term benefits of the Longshore Act for workers and employers and to explore the need for any necessary reforms.